The "trial" genre differs from the broader "courtroom drama" in that the latter includes any film in which a justice system plays an integral role in the film's narrative, and thus does not necessarily require the inclusion of a legal trial.
In 1989, the American Bar Association rated the 12 best trial films of all time in their ABA Journal, providing a detailed and reasoned legal evaluation for its choices. Ten of the films are in English; M (1931) is in German and The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is a French silent film. Moreover, ten of them take place (at least, in part) in a courtroom.
The ABA also published a list of the 12 best trial stageplays, noting that the transition from film to the stage is sometimes difficult. It also has an extensive honorable mention list.
|Title||Release year||Top ten list||Notes|
|12 Angry Men||1957||American Bar Association (ABA);
American Film Institute (AFI)
|Nominated for 3 Academy Awards.|
|A Cry in the Dark||1988||AFI|
|A Few Good Men||1992||AFI||Court-martial|
|A Man for All Seasons||1966||ABA and AFI||Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning 6. Based on a real trial.|
|In Cold Blood||1967||AFI|
|Anatomy of a Murder||1959||ABA and AFI||Nominated for 7 Academy Awards. Based on a real trial.|
|Inherit the Wind||1960||ABA and AFI||Nominated for 4 Academy Awards. Based on a real trial.|
|Judgment at Nuremberg||1961||ABA||Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning 2. Based on a real trial.|
|Kramer vs. Kramer||1979||AFI|
|Paths of Glory||1957||ABA||Based on a real court-martial.|
|The Passion of Joan of Arc||1928||ABA||Based on a real trial.|
|The Wrong Man||1957||ABA||Based on a real trial.|
|To Kill a Mockingbird||1962||ABA and AFI||Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning 3.|
|The Verdict||1982||ABA and AFI||Nominated for 5 Academy Awards.|
|Witness for the Prosecution||1957||AFI|
Outside of the first few minutes of the film, 12 Angry Men (1957) never enters a courtroom at all. It views the particular case and the system of justice through the prism of jury deliberations. The film explains practical explications of legal concepts basic to the American system of justice, and their effect on a particular trial and defendant. Those include the presumption of innocence, burden of proof, and the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
The trial in M (1931) does not take place in a legal courtroom; rather, crime syndicate leaders along with the city's underground hold proceedings in a warehouse. Despite the lack of legal trappings, "it is one of the most effective trials ever filmed, questioning our notions of justice and revenge, mob rule and order, power and responsibility." Wearing long leather coats instead of robes, criminals become judges. The murderer is cast as the victim, while the forces of law and order must rely on luck. Peter Lorre strikingly raises the issue of his culpability due to alleged insanity, and the imposition of ultimate retributive justice is depicted as being unsatisfying for society and the survivors of the murdered victims.
Military trial films
They typically include conflicting questions of loyalty, command responsibility, ethical rules and rules of engagement, obedience to superior authority, politics and class conflict. War and trials are good foils for one another. The struggles are perennial and engaging. A partial list includes:
|The Caine Mutiny||1954||climaxes in a strongly contested court martial, and a particularly dynamic cross-examination, in which Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) acts out one of film's most dramatic meltdowns. The film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards.|
|Paths of Glory||1957||black and white depiction of a corrupt World War I French court martial leading to a firing squad, and a 'futility of war' conclusion. It was directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Kirk Douglas as the failed defense attorney.|
|Town Without Pity||1961||Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington were nominated for an Academy Award for the theme song, "Town Without Pity", which was sung by Gene Pitney.|
|King and Country||1964||In the trenches in France during World War I, a British captain (Dirk Bogarde) has to defend a shell-shocked private (Tom Courtenay), who is charged with desertion. The film was directed by Joseph Losey.|
|Breaker Morant||1980||a court martial of Australian soldiers, including Harry 'Breaker' Morant, by their British commanders in the aftermath of the Boer War in South Africa. The film details the tribulations of the defense counsel and the defendants, as they try to throw a wrench into the administrative gears of Morant's court martial. Anticipating the Nuremberg trials and the defense of "superior orders", the soldiers' main defense is that they were doing their duty as they understood it, and following orders and policy from above. Nevertheless, this "kangaroo court" moves to its inevitable conclusion. The film was nominated for an Academy Award.|
|A Few Good Men||1992||released after the ABA's list was compiled, the film contains the famous "You can't handle the truth" exchange. The film was adapted from a Broadway play written by Aaron Sorkin (who also wrote the screenplay), and acted by Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson.|
|Rules of Engagement||2000||Marine Colonel Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) is brought to court-martial on charges of disobeying the rules of engagement in a military incident at an American embassy in Yemen, with flashbacks to Vietnam.|
|Shaurya||2008||a Hindi-language film based on the backdrop of the Kashmir conflict, and directed by Samar Khan starring Rahul Bose and Kay Kay Menon in lead roles.|
|Melvilasom||2011||a Malayalam-language film based on Soorya Krishna Moorthy's stage play of the same name, which itself was based on the play Court Martial by Swadesh Deepak.|
|American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally||2021||It is based on the life of Mildred Gillars, an American singer and actor who during World War II broadcast Nazi propaganda to US troops and their families back home.|
Religious trial films
- God on Trial (2008) is a BBC/WGBH Boston television play that takes place in Auschwitz during World War II. The Jewish prisoners put God on trial in absentia for abandoning the Jewish people by allowing Nazi Germany to commit genocide.
- The Passion of the Christ (2004), in which Jesus Christ (played by Jim Caviezel) is alternately tried by Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate and ultimately executed by Pilate. Nominated for three Academy Awards.
- The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) features Walter Huston as the Devil arguing for a man's soul. Huston was nominated for the Best Actor in a Leading Role Academy Award.
- Solomon and Sheba (1959) portrays the famous Judgment of Solomon from the Bible.
- The Man Who Sued God (2001), an Australian film starring Billy Connolly who takes God (represented by the church) to court for compensation over the destruction of his fishing boat due to an "act of God".
- Inherit the Wind (1960), starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Gene Kelly, is an American film set in a small religious town where a teacher begins to teach evolution, and goes to court for his right to teach such.
- The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), directed by Scott Derrickson, is an American courtroom drama horror film loosely based on the story of Anneliese Michel. It follows a self-proclaimed agnostic defense lawyer representing a parish priest who is accused by the state of negligent homicide after he performed an exorcism. The film, which largely takes place in a courtroom, depicts the events leading up to and including the exorcism through flashbacks.
- The Crucible (1996) is a drama film written by Arthur Miller and based on his play of the same name, loosely dramatising the Salem witch trials. It was directed by Nicholas Hytner and stars Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor, Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams, Paul Scofield as Judge Thomas Danforth, and Joan Allen as Elizabeth Proctor.
- An American Tragedy, a 1931 drama directed by Josef von Sternberg.
- Judge Priest, a 1934 Will Rogers comedy directed by John Ford.
- The Prisoner of Shark Island, a 1936 biopic directed by John Ford.
- Fury, a 1936 drama directed by Fritz Lang.
- Young Mr. Lincoln, a 1939 biopic directed by John Ford.
- The Return of Frank James, a 1940 western directed by Fritz Lang.
- The Letter, a 1940 film directed by William Wyler.
- Roxie Hart, 1942 comedy directed by William Wellman.
- The Ox-Bow Incident, unusual in that the trial does not take place in a formal court room, but is a vote among a posse that turns into a lynch mob. Directed by William A. Wellman, and starring Henry Fonda (who also starred in Twelve Angry Men). It was nominated for Best Picture Oscar in 1943.
- Leave Her to Heaven, a 1945 film noir directed by John M. Stahl.
- In Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) has his sanity examined at a hearing. The film won 4 Academy Awards, with Gwenn winning for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The film was also nominated for Best Picture.
- The Lady from Shanghai, a 1947 film noir directed and starring Orson Welles.
- The Paradine Case, a 1947 film noir directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
- Pinky 1949, a 1949 film directed by Elia Kazan.
- Adam's Rib, a 1949 comedy directed by George Cukor.
- The Sun Shines Bright, 1953 remake directed by John Ford.
- Witness for the Prosecution, a 1957 film directed by Billy Wilder. Based on the short story by Agatha Christie.
- The Wreck of the Mary Deare is told in flashbacks as witnesses give their account of a story during an Admiralty court proceeding.
- Sergeant Rutledge, a 1960 western directed by John Ford.
- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a 1962 western directed by John Ford.
- Kibar Feyzo (1978) is a Turkish comedy drama film starring Kemal Sunal, Şener Şen, Müjde Ar, Adile Naşit, İhsan Yüce, İlyas Salman and Erdal Özyağcılar.
- ...And Justice for All (1979), directed by Norman Jewison and nominated for 2 Academy Awards, examines the flawed and human, venal, and immoral side of justice, focusing on all-too-human judges. As Norman Webster wrote, the film "is a sweeping – and somewhat simple-minded – indictment of the American justice system." The film can be seen from the perspective of Judicial Qualifications Commissions (also known as Judicial Tenure Commissions), which are judicial agencies charged with overseeing judicial performance and conduct. From that end, the indictment of the courts and judicial system (and the examples) are not so outlandish as might be supposed. Starred Al Pacino, Jack Warden, and John Forsythe.
- From the Hip (1987) is a Comedy Drama starring Judd Nelson, Elizabeth Perkins, John Hurt, and Ray Walston about a first year lawyer manipulating his way into trying a case much earlier in his career than is normal. Much of the humor took place in the first case, a simple assault case in which he garnered significant media attention and developed a high profile for himself and attention to his firm. The more dramatic second case was a murder case which tested the young attorney's ethics.
- Presumed Innocent (1990) is a film directed by Alan J. Pakula, adapted from the novel of the same name by Scott Turow, in which an assistant district attorney (Harrison Ford) is on trial, framed for the murder of another assistant DA (Greta Scacchi). The film received several nominations for its screenplay, written by Alan J. Pakula and Frank Pierson.
- JFK (1991) is an American conspiracy-thriller film that examines the events leading to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and it alleged cover-up, through the eyes of former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison. The film culminates in the 1969 trial of businessman Clay Shaw for his alleged participation in a conspiracy to assassinate the president.
- The Client a 1994 American legal thriller film directed by Joel Schumacher, and starring Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones and Brad Renfro in his film debut. It is based on the novel of the same name by John Grisham. The film was released in the United States on July 20, 1994. The movie features an all star cast. Sarandon nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress and won a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
- Primal Fear (1996) is a film, directed by Gregory Hoblit, that tells a story of a defense attorney (Richard Gere) who defends an altar boy (Edward Norton) charged with the murder of a Catholic archbishop. The film is an adaptation of William Diehl's novel of the same name. Norton was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his career-launching role.
- A Civil Action (1998) is a film based on the 1996 nonfiction novel of the same name. It stars John Travolta and Robert Duvall, the latter having been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the film.
- A Time to Kill (1996) is a feature film adaptation of John Grisham's 1989 legal thriller of the same name.
- Amistad (1997) is a historical drama, directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the true story of an uprising in 1839 by newly-captured African slaves that took place aboard the ship La Amistad off the coast of Cuba, the subsequent voyage to the northeastern United States, and the legal battle that followed their capture by a U.S. revenue cutter. It was nominated for four Academy Awards.
- Chicago (2002) is a remake directed by Rob Marshall.
- Bernie (2011) is a black comedy film based on the real-life 1996 murder of 81-year-old millionaire Marjorie Nugent in Carthage, Texas by her companion Bernhardt "Bernie" Tiede. Tiede having been extremely well-liked in his local community, the film explores the trial process and the popular support he received, which caused great difficulties for the prosecution.
- The Trial (2014) is a Filipino legal drama film that tells the story of a mentally handicapped man who is accused of rape by the family of a teacher on whom he has a crush. It stars John Lloyd Cruz, Jessy Mendiola, Gretchen Barretto, Richard Gomez and Enrique Gil, and was produced by Star Cinema as part of their 20th anniversary offering.
- The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) is a legal drama focused on the trial of the so-called 'Chicago Seven' in the late 1960s to early 1970.
- Rafter, Nicole. 2001. "American Criminal Trial Films: An Overview of Their Development, 1930–2000". Journal of Law and Society 28(1):9–24. JSTOR 3657944.
- "American Film Institute, Court Room drama top ten". 2008. Retrieved August 16, 2015.
- "Verone, Patric M. "The 12 Best Trial Movies" from the ABA Journal. November 1989 reprinted in Nebraska Law Journal".
- Chanen, Jill Schachner (August 1, 2012). "The Theater's 12 Greatest Courtroom Dramas". ABA Journal. Retrieved July 27, 2012.
- From the 1951 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk, ISBN 0-89577-414-3
- "Review noting Captain Queeg cross examination".
- "'Breaker' Morant, A film review by Christopher Null".
- Excerpt of cross examination in A Few Good Men.
- "Kemal Sunal all films" (in Turkish). Retrieved October 25, 2014.
- "Apollo Guide Review "And Justice for All" by Norman Webster".
- Leib, Brenden (2018-01-31). "The Top Ten Trial Movies of All Time - Leib Knott Gaynor LLC". Leib Knott Gaynor. Retrieved 2021-03-12.
- Asimow, Michael (August 1, 2008). "How I Learned to Litigate at the Movies: 5 Lawyers Share Silver Screen Secrets!!!". American Bar Association Journal. Retrieved February 22, 2013.
- Bergman, Paul; Asimow, Michael (2006). Reel justice: the courtroom goes to the movies. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel. ISBN 0-7407-5460-2. ISBN 978-0-7407-5460-9; ISBN 0-8362-1035-2; ISBN 978-0-8362-1035-4.
- Chanen, Jill Schachner (August 1, 2012). "The Theater's 12 Greatest Courtroom Dramas". ABA Journal. Retrieved February 24, 2013.
- Freedman, David (January 27, 2011). "The Law Movie Review".
- Machura, Stefan; Robson, Peter, eds. (2001). Law and Film: Representing Law in Movies. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishing. p. 176. ISBN 0-631-22816-0.
|first2=has generic name (help) ISBN 978-0-631-22816-5
- Sarat, Austin, Jessica Silbey, and Martha Merrill Umphrey, eds. (2019). Trial Films on Trial: Law, Justice, and Popular Culture. University of Alabama Press. ISBN 978-0-8173-2026-3.
- Vesper, Thomas J. (2012). Uncle Anthony's Unabridged Analogies, Quotes, Proverbs, Blessings & Toasts for Lawyers, Lecturers & Laypeople (3rd ed.). St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing, Thomson Reuters. ISBN 9780314283214. (includes a section on movies about lawyers)
- 807 "Best trial movies" at Internet Movie Database, which brings a worldwide perspective, but also lumps in some movies that do not quickly come to mind as "trial movies".
- Brust, Richard (August 1, 2008). "25 Greatest Legal Movies". American Bar Association Journal. Retrieved February 24, 2012.
- —— (August 1, 2008). "The 25 Greatest Legal Movies: Honorable Mentions Among the Other Legal Films Our Jury Cited (in alphabetical order)". American Bar Association Journal. Retrieved February 22, 2013.
- "Lawyers and the Legal Process: A Bibliography of Books and Articles in the UC Berkeley Libraries". University of California at Berkeley. Retrieved August 28, 2012.